Social mobility, conventionally, refers to the ability of individuals to move up or down the “social ladder” within their lifetime (also referred to as intra-generational mobility), or the ability of children to move up or down the “ladder” relative to their parents (also referred to as inter-generational mobility). Social mobility – or equality of opportunity – can thus be defined as the ability of an individual to achieve a better economic and/or social position for him/herself (and his/her family) through hard work and merit. Furthermore, access to resources and the “starting point’ from which people work to improve their lives (in whichever way they wish to), holds implications for the ability of people to achieve their goals– for social mobility

[1]. General approaches to investigating social mobility include: an emphasis on class mobility (often defined in terms of movement between classes through occupational categories), looking at economic or income categories (both inter- and intra-generational) and changes in this regard, or investigating perceptions of social mobility[2].

It is important to bear in mind that various societies make available different opportunities for mobility to various extents, and that people may deem various goals as appropriate to advance in their lives – depending on the respective value systems in their respective societies and/or communities. For example, capitalist societies – in general – are more meritocratic, and social standing is more likely to be based on factors such as educational attainment, income levels, and occupational prestige. Thus, the degree of social mobility in such societies may be conditional on the extent to which individuals have access to educational and economic opportunity to a much greater extent than is the case for societies with different value systems. For example, societies where religious devotion is valued, social mobility may be determined more by the individuals’ access to, and participation in, religious rituals and being pious[3].  In considering social mobility, it is thus important to not only take into account income levels, occupational prestige and educational attainment – as is the convention- but also to allow for people’s own perceptions on the resources they need to advance in the ways that they want, given the value systems and societies they operate in.

To this end, the fourth 2015 South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB) briefing paper (to be released on 07 November 2016), explores South African’s perceptions on whether they have access to certain resources, and certain advantages they need in order to achieve the goals they have for themselves. Respondents were asked to consider the goals they have in their own lives, and then to consider whether they have access to the financial resources they need to achieve their goals; whether they have access to groups of people who can help them achieve their goals; whether they have the education they need to achieve their goals, and whether they can easily get (or travel) to the places they need to be in order to achieve their goals.

Perceptions on the latter – physical mobility – being able to easily travel or get to where you need to in order to achieve your goals – can be influenced by various factors, such as: perceptions of safety when using public transport, the ability to drive, having the resources for a personal motor car or other means of transport, the resources to make use of public transport, distance to the nearest transport facilities, and physical abilities or disabilities.

In the briefing paper mentioned above, perceptions in this regard are disaggregated in terms of Living Standard Measure (LSM) Groups, Race Groups and with Employment Status. Key findings in this report include: more respondents in higher LSM groups report having the physical mobility they need in achieving their goals than is the case for lower LSM groups; and, that employed respondents report having the physical mobility they need to achieve their goals to a much greater extent than unemployed respondents.

Two further findings, which were not included in this report, but which are also telling, can be found when disaggregating responses according to Gender and Area (Metro / Non-metro). It is important to note that these figures can tell us who feels or believes that they have the required physical mobility they need to achieve their goals, but not why.

Physical Mobility and Gender

Figure 1 below shows that only 40,4% of respondents believe they can easily get to where they need to in order to achieve their goals. When disaggregating responses according to gender categories, only 35,7% of female respondents, but 45,5% of male respondents believe they can easily get to where they need to in order to achieve their goals.

Figure 1: Physical mobility, by Gender

graph1

Physical Mobility and Area (Metro / Non-metro)

Figure 2 shows that almost half of the respondents living in metros (49,4%), but only a third (34,1%) of Non-metro respondents agree to being able to easily get to where they need to in order to achieve their goals.

Figure 2: Physical mobility, by Area

graph2

Conclusion

Life in various societies can be underpinned by different value systems. Individuals in various communities and/or societies can thus have a variety of self-identified goals that extend beyond the conventional understanding of factors of social mobility – such as income, education and occupational prestige.

Ensuring that people have access to the resources they need to achieve their goals, and are able to work to the goals they have in their lives, are important for creating a society where social mobility is possible – bearing in mind that the idea of advancement may be underpinned by various value systems. Physical mobility is an important factor in enabling advancement – regardless of the value system on which individuals’ goals are founded on. Access to for example to public transport or personal transport may work in furthering or alleviating socio-economic inequalities.

Although we can only infer WHO reports being physical mobile in achieving their goals, it is safe to say that having access to safe, accessible, reliable and affordable public transport, can alleviate the need for personal transport means, as well as alleviate many factors which may determine whether people feel they can reach the places they need to get to in order to achieve their self-identified goals – thus creating an environment for people to believe that they can get to the places they need to go in order to achieve their self-identified goals.

Elnari Potgieter is the Project Leader for the South African Reconciliation Barometer at IJR

 

[1] Wilkinson, R., Pickett, K. 2009. ‘Social mobility: unequal opportunities’, in The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Penguin Group.

[2] Telzak, S.C. 2012. ‘The Tithes of Apartheid: Perceptions of Social Mobility Among Black Individuals in Cape Town, South Africa’. Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR), Working Paper No. 315, November 2012.

[3] Boundless. “Types of Social Mobility.” Boundless Sociology. Boundless, 26 May. 2016. Retrieved 31 Oct. 2016 from https://www.boundless.com/sociology/textbooks/boundless-sociology-textbook/stratification-inequality-and-social-class-in-the-u-s-9/social-mobility-76/types-of-social-mobility-452-2421/v